I’ll admit that the events of September 11 2001 didn’t affect me as deeply as they should have. I was somewhat removed from the experience as it was televised into my living room. Giant planes smacking into even bigger buildings just felt surreal, like watching a film, and the always professional – and as a result emotionless – coverage provided by CNN distanced me even further from that terrible day.
Only recently has my perception of that day changed. In a strange twist it has taken a film to make the events of that day more real to me, personalising and putting a face to the horror that the numerous victims must have experienced.
On September 11 2001 four American planes were hijacked. Three hit their targets (two flying into the World Trade centre and one into the Pentagon) but the fourth crashed before reaching its destination (reports say this could have been the White House). This flight was United Airlines 93.
Yes, United 93 is a film about September 11, but before you roll your eyes into the back of your head – as I did before seeing it – I must tell you that this is easily the best film of the year. It is the most riveting, emotional and tense film experience you will go through in 2006 and is a stellar tribute to the passengers on that ill-fated flight.
Through the telephone calls that the passengers made to their families before they died, talking to those families directly and by adopting a rigorous rehearsal and casting process, Director Paul Greengrass (2002’s Bloody Sunday) has created a stunning film that is devoid of Hollywood romanticism or overblown posturing. For the most part this is a film that gets as close to being completely sincere and truthful as a film can be.
As an almost real time depiction of the events of that day it begins slowly. We are introduced to the terrorists as they leave for the airport, then the passengers as they mull about in the terminal chatting and shooting the breeze. These scenes are inter-cut with various air traffic controllers and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) officials just going about their day. It all feels very ordinary but the underlying dramatic irony – because we know how the events play out – creates an incredibly, tense atmosphere. When the flight controllers start reporting that planes are not responding to their communications and the FAA doesn’t know how to react the situation gets crazy. The passengers on United 93 are, however, oblivious to the danger they are in. It all has a “lambs to the slaughter” feel. Fortunately, these lambs are courageous enough to fight back.
Utilising a documentary approach to the filming Greengrass puts you right onboard the plane and you become one of the passengers. You are forced to experience – as closely as possible – what the victims of 93 must have experienced before they died. I can’t describe effectively enough how this film gripped me. It locked me into my chair in shocked identification with the passengers.
There are no central characters, so this identification is a collective one. Greengrass lets the camera hover over random people – in the terminal and on the plane – at what seems like random moments, catching bits of dialogue and glimpses of their lives, and what this does is give us a broad overview of the passengers. It establishes their normalcy – these were ordinary people who led ordinary lives – in relation to the challenge they would be forced to face, becoming extraordinary through their efforts. The final sequence is breathtaking.
United 93 is a stunning piece of filmmaking. It does justice to the heroes of flight 93 by reconstructing the events leading to their sacrifice in an ethical and unglamourised manner. It isn’t an easy watch, this is not a film you see to be entertained, but if you want to be sensitised to the events of September 11 and experience one of the most powerful pieces of cinema that I’ve sat through, then you must see it.